Previously I posted about adapting D&D so that combat is no longer fatal, which I have yet to test, but I thought of a deeper idea to add to that hack: a scarlet letter. Obviously I’m referring back to the Hawthorne novel, but in this case, a different letter with a different meaning.
First, start with D&D and the additional hack or house rule that combat is no longer fatal. When a character or monster is beaten down to 0 or negative hit points, what it represents is that they are defeated, but not necessarily dead. But in conversation with my friend and collaborator Aric, we thought that this house rule would make it more interesting when a foe or monster did want to fight to the death. It would be all the more threatening in a setting where the players had gotten used to these non-lethal combats as the norm.
Now, the addition. I thought it would be interesting if only monsters who could be killed were able to kill. And I thought it would be interesting if this was marked out on the character sheet somehow. So, for example, if a player wants their character to be able to kill a monster or another NPC, they just wrote “Monster” on the character sheet, or checked the Monster box or something. Then I thought it would be even more interesting if this mark was literal, in the game world itself. The character marks themselves with a red “M.” If a foe or monster is marked with a red “M” then you know ahead of time that this is a fight to the death. Only creatures with a “M” can kill. It’s definitely a meta-game element, something akin to a creature having a red outline in a video game, or some other visual marker that is obvious to the player but not literally part of the fictional world.
I thought this was really interesting. You have to take that step, identify yourself as a monster, in order to kill your enemies, but you are vulnerable to any creature with the ‘scarlet letter.’ Is this too heavy-handed? Maybe. It could be interesting for a convention game, maybe, or a game with kids. I like, as an experiment, that it is a visible distinction that you have to make. It’s a clear choice, and of course, there is probably no way to remove the “M” once it’s in place. (Maybe an atonement spell? That would give that spell a really cool purpose)
How to explain this mark? Maybe the PCs are part of a simulation, or an alien experiment on violent behavior, or inmates in a magical prison. Who knows? Maybe it’s just a weird thing about the world, like aboleths and Vancian magic. I mean, it’s not like D&D makes sense to start with. But I like how this plays with the old D&D trope of some intelligent creatures being “monsters” – having something intrinsic about them that makes them stand out as threats. I like applying this to the PCs and non-“monster” races. I do have to think more about how to implement it, though.
It makes me think of Mist-Robed Gate, an indie rpg by Shreyas Sampat with a mechanic whereby, if you want to try to kill another character, you literally stab their character sheet with a knife. There are other games I’ve read about where you point a knife at a character at the table if you are attacking them, or outwardly mark lethal intent in other ways, but I like the idea of an obvious move that opens up the possibility of lethality when that isn’t the norm. The ‘scarlet letter’ M is just another way to do that.